The Story of Hills they are Hollow – 2003
I thought I’d do a series of blog posts that focussed on the creation of my albums. Each one has its own character, and reflects what was happening in my life at the time of their creation. The first of these told the story of Herne’s Apprentice.
In 2003, a year after the release of Herne’s Apprentice, out popped Hills they are Hollow.
You can read the story of each of the songs from Hills the are Hollow on the album’s page on this website, so I think I should write about the way the album came into being. I had written so many songs that I can only describe it as having creative constipation – I found that I couldn’t write any more songs until the ones I’d already written had been recorded. This was relieved by the release of Herne’s Apprentice, and it wasn’t long before I was putting pick to string, pen to paper, and writing again.
The first song I wrote for this album was Lady of the Silver Wheel. Arianrhod had been my guide through my Ovate work with the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids so I wanted to write a song in her honour. When I wrote the song it was a simple arrangement on mandolin, just like the version I play live. But when I sat down to record the song something very unexpected happened. I laid down the mandolin track and a guide vocal line, but for some reason I then switched on the orchestral midi sequencer and just started to play with the sounds of violin, viola and cello. To this day I’ve no idea why.
The way sampled interments work is that you can either physically play them on a midi keyboard, or you can place notes on a screen. Some people think this is cheating and somehow not real music, but I feel it’s like sculpting with sound. I placed notes, arranged harmonies, staccato movements, and slowly this entire orchestra took shape. As many of you know I don’t read music or understand music theory. I’m led by my ear, and my ear was telling me this was the right thing to do with this song. When it was finished and I pressed play I could barely believe what I heard.
So I had discovered midi, and I continued to explore this with a few of the other songs on the album, particularly Merlin am I and The Voyage of Bran instrumental. I held back with the midi sounds by the time I recorded Spirit of Albion, but for Hills they were new and exciting.
The other difference between Herne’s Apprentice and Hills is the drums and percussion. With Herne’s Apprentice I used the format I’d been used to with Spiral Castle and just played the rhythm on a Djembe drum, but with Hills I went back to my rock roots and played a full drum kit. So the overall sound of songs like the title track forged my sound into a more folk-rock sound, one that I’ve continued to this day.
For audiophiles I was still using Logic 4 on a Dell computer with an M audio interface. I used the same set up for the next album Spirit of Albion, only upgrading to a Mac and updating Logic for The Cauldron Born.
This was a very creative album. I tried pretty much anything and everything, keeping some things and discarding others. My old friend from Spiral Castle played a blinder of an electric lead guitar solo on The Mabon, and the two guest voices of Louise McCabe and Eala on Lady of the Silver Wheel and Samhain Eve just added so much to the songs. Both of these additional vocal lines came to me whilst out driving. I’d got a lot of the tracks recorded and was listening to the album in the car, just checking levels, tone, that kind of thing, when I heard both of those alternate melodies in my mind. Arianrhod weaving her line among the chorus, and then The Caileach’s haunting refrain calling and enticing us to follow her as the Hunt passes by at Samhain. Then I also added the orchestra again on the fade out section of that song. I think the addition of those two vocal lines added so much to each song.
Other highlights for me – when the didgeridoo and drums come in during the intro to the title track; the haunting chorus of Grimspound always brings back memories of sitting in the remains of the Iron Age roundhouse there, watching the ravens, and writing the song; Only Son always makes me cry; adding layers of music for the Voyage of Bran; the diddly mandolin lead bit of The Greenwood Grove.
I really loved creating this album.
There would be a three year gap before my next album Spirit of Albion…